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Mayor Kim M. Janey has been rightfully lauded for breaking all sorts of barriers in Boston politics — most notably, and recently, being sworn in as the first woman and first Black mayor of Boston.
In a city as notorious for racism as it is for just about anything else, her spot at the top of City Hall is no small feat — and Janey has come to be about fixing it. She has taken it upon herself to dismantle her city’s reputation for injustice — not just through representation but also decisions and policy. Prominently displayed on the mayor’s website as the first item below her short bio is her flagship plan: Boston’s Movement to End Racism.
That this plan exists as the centerfold of any mayor’s platform is incredibly encouraging and speaks to the power of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year. Confronting racism has been on the back burner among Democratic politicians for decades, making Janey’s plans as refreshing as they are necessary.
But, Madam Mayor, your current plan to “end racism” is far from being as comprehensive as it needs to be.
At present, Janey’s pledges and actions are heavily centered on policing and healthcare. Reallocating 20 percent of the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget to investments in minority communities and signing an ordinance aimed at police accountability are meaningful first steps in these first few months. But they leave us far from the end.
For a plan to have any chance at “ending” racism, it must reach out further than this strictly two-pronged approach. Another important system demanding attention is Boston Public Schools.
Janey has dedicated her life to her deep care for the city’s youth and, separately, shared terrifying personal experiences of racist violence as an 11-year-old during school integration. Hence, it should come as no surprise to the mayor that racism runs deep in our school system. And while today’s students of color may not experience injustice as explicit as rocks being thrown at them, BPS still exposes them to undue risk of falling through the cracks due to systemic inequities.
To take just one instance: The adverse effects of exclusionary school discipline — punishments like suspension that take students out of the classroom — are well known. They have a solid link to the school-to-prison pipeline and educational development issues, familiar threats to communities of color. Compared to the rest of the nation, Boston has done a great job reducing the amount of exclusionary discipline used across the board. But when the data is broken down by race, it’s clear BPS is still failing racial minorities.
For the same, most common, and least egregious category of offense in the 2019-20 academic year, “non-drug, non-violent, or non-criminal related offenses,” white students were nearly six times less likely than their Black and Latinx peers to be suspended. Stated more potently, students of color are six times more likely to be exposed to all the lifelong negative consequences of missing classroom time than their white peers.
This alone should alarm and dishearten Mayor Janey and the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Brenda Cassellius. They must take action to correct this system as an essential part of any “movement to end racism” in Boston.
For starters, they could use these data that they are already collecting to incentivize anti-racism in school evaluations. Currently, BPS’s “School Quality Framework” — the system used to evaluate and rank schools — only gives 10 percent weighting to a school’s “Family, Community, and Culture,” which includes how frequently students are punished. Additionally, this consideration of punishment is race-blind — so a school’s “culture” rating does not consider the disproportionate rate at which students of color are punished at present.
School evaluations could easily be changed to weigh a school’s culture more heavily and, within that culture, consider whether the staff is equitable in their use of punishments across demographic groups. This can create an anti-racist incentive for schools: Those fairer in their distribution of punishment for the same offenses receive higher evaluations, and vice versa.
But BPS should go even further than that. Researchers have shown that teachers are equally likely to believe that white and Black children should be punished for the first instance of a behavioral infraction. However, from the second infraction onwards, Black children become significantly more likely than white children to be punished for the same offense. Whether this bias is intentional or not is irrelevant compared to its impact on Black and brown students. Repeat recipients of punishment are labeled as “troublemakers” — a label impressionable students then feel inclined to embody — initiating a cycle of receiving more severe punishments over time, ending with students out of the classroom and in harm’s way.
BPS could increase accountability and begin collecting and publicizing the records of the rate at which various demographics of students receive repeat punishments at schools. Simply put, students and parents of color have a right to know if they or their child is likely to be subject to more unfair treatment over time. Teachers and principals ought to see if they are giving more punishments to certain kids over others. And, those individuals making conduct and discipline guidelines also ought to consider the realities of how equitably BPS teachers exercise their authority to punish students over time.
These steps are a small but necessary part of a much larger project required to “end racism” in Boston. They display that there’s ample room in education and other domains to incentivize anti-racism.
So, Mayor Janey, I implore you to be thorough and include BPS students in your current plans as mayor and in your campaign for a full term. It’s in line with both the city’s needs and your own goals.
Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23, Crimson Diversity and Inclusivity Committee Chair and Associate Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Social Studies and African and African American Studies in Dunster House.
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